Sunday, December 20, 2009
When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by a corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.
Chapter 1 Farmer and Soldier
At the height of its power, the great Roman Empire stretched from the deserts of Africa to the borders of northern England. Over one quarter of the world’s population lived and died under the rule of the Caesars.*
In the winter of A.D.† 180, Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s twelve-year war against the people of Germania was coming to an end. There was one last battle to win. Then there would be peace across the Roman Empire.
The man walked through the sun-warmed Spanish field, his hand touching the wheat. He looked past apple trees to a farmhouse. He heard a child laughing somewhere near. A bird flew onto the branch of a tree close to him and they looked at each other. The man smiled.
Suddenly, the sound of shouts and horses frightened the bird and it flew up into the air. The noise broke through the man’s daydream and he came back to the real world with a crash. He was not dressed in farmer’s clothes, as he had imagined, but in the proud armor of the Roman army. The field was burnt and muddy from battle, without a green leaf on it.
Beyond the tree line ahead, somewhere in the forest, the German armies were preparing to attack again. The man knew that behind him an enormous army waited. The Roman army, 40,000 men, his army. Maximus the farmer was Maximus the Commanding General of the Army of the North for one more battle. One last battle, and then he could go home to Spain.
He turned his horse and rode back to his men. Thirty-year-old Maximus was a great general—a man they could trust. He moved among them, checking that they were ready for battle. He looked back frequently to the line of trees.
Some of his officers were warming themselves around a fire, and Maximus joined them.
“Still nothing?” he asked Quintus, his second-in-command.
Quintus shook his head. “He’s been gone for almost two hours,” he said. “Why are they taking so long? They only have to say yes or no.”
A young officer gave Maximus a bowl of hot soup. He drank it slowly as they talked, always keeping one eye on the line of trees.
“Snow in the air,” said Maximus. “I can smell it.”
“Anything’s better than this German rain,” Quintus said, looking out at the mud in front of his men.
Suddenly, there was a shout. “He’s coming!”
All eyes turned to the trees. A horseman rode out, toward the Roman army. There was something strange about the way he was riding. Maximus was the first to understand.
“They say no,” he said.
As the horse came closer, the other men could see what had happened. The Roman messenger was tied to his horse. His head had been cut off. Maximus knew now what he had to do. Life was suddenly simple.
Far away, at the edge of the trees, a German chief appeared. In one hand he was holding the head of the messenger. He screamed his anger at the Roman army, then threw the head toward them.
Maximus’s men stared back and waited for their general’s order to attack.
Several carriages traveled along the road toward the battle area, protected by Roman soldiers. Inside the first carriage were the royal family—the Emperor’s son and daughter. Twenty-eight-year-old Commodus and his beautiful older sister Lucilla were dressed in rich, warm clothes. They had left Rome two weeks before.
“Do you think he’s really dying?” Commodus asked Lucilla.
“He’s been dying for ten years,” she replied.
“I think he’s really sick this time. And he’s sent for us.” He pointed to the following carriages. “He sent for the senators, too. If he isn’t dying, why does he want to see them?”
“Commodus, you’re giving me a headache. Two weeks on the road with you is more than enough,” said Lucilla, impatiently.
Commodus moved closer to her. “No, he’s made his decision,” he said. “He will name me as Emperor. And I know what I shall do first. I shall organize some games . . .”
“I shall have a hot bath,” said Lucilla.
The carriage stopped. Commodus stepped down and spoke to one of the guards.
“We are almost there, sir.”
“Good,” said Commodus. “Bring me my horse.”
Under his warm traveling coat Commodus was wearing Roman armor. He looked handsome and brave, the perfect picture of a new, young emperor. The guard brought Commodus his horse.
“Take me to my father. And take my sister to the camp.”
Commodus reached out a hand to Lucilla. “Kiss,” he said, smiling like a little boy.
Lucilla brushed his fingers with her lips then watched him ride away.
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